Remembering a World War II Story….
By Rita Maisel
One of the best-known slogans of World War II was that the war was fought on land, on sea and in the air even though initially the US did not yet have a separate Air Force. Because of distances for overseas battles, the Naval Air Force featured planes that could attack from ships at sea while the Army had the Army Air Corps which operated from landing fields on allied property. Several American bomber bases in England were adapted to the needs of the large American bombers known as Flying Fortresses, and many local families had family members who were stationed at these bases. Bruce and Dorothy Johnson from Edmore have just returned from a memorial celebration in France where Bruce’s cousin, Roy W. Christianson, was one of the men honored this summer at the French village where his plane crashed 75 years ago[LG1]. This week’s column updates his story.
Roy Christianson was the son of Philip and Judith (Johnson) Christianson and just turning two years old when World War I ended. That war had many casualties both in the war and at home because of the epidemic of Spanish Influenza. Roy’s Johnson grandparents were living near Kloten, ND in December of 1918 when the flu reached them. His grandmother died December 31 of that year and his mother, who was one of their married daughters, died January 1, 1919. The original Johnson family had 12 children several of whom were young enough to still be in school. Judith, the young mother who died, also had three small children including Roy who after her death stayed on the farm along with the younger Johnson children and his grandfather. Later, the combined family moved from Kloten to Derrick in Ramsey County where Roy made his home with his uncle and aunt, Edward and Esther Johnson, and attended Edmore High School, graduating in 1934. The Edward Johnsons later had two sons, Winston and Bruce, who still farm near Edmore. After High School came college at UND where Roy was a member of the boxing team and graduated as a teacher in 1939.
Roy, a member of the National Guard, taught for a year and a half before being called to active duty early in 1941. From there he transferred to the Army Air Corps which sent him for combat crew training as a pilot and commissioned him as a second lieutenant. The crew was assembled at Battle Creek, MI and from there flew to Molesworth, England.
Roy was assigned to a crew of ten men under the command of 1 LT Louis “Mel” Schulstad, originally from Reynolds, ND, who was their regular pilot. Second in command was 2 Lt. Roy W. Christianson from Edmore who was the co-pilot. They were assigned one of the B-17 Flying Fortresses and became a part of the 360th Bomb Squadron. Each crew chose a nickname for their aircraft which was painted on the airplane along with designs called nose art. The men of their crew were not sure what to name the plane so when someone said, “Beats Me?!” that became the name by which they were identified.
As a crew they flew numerous missions over targets in Europe, but the one that made the record books was their eleventh mission leaving Molesworth in bombing formation with other planes on January 23, 1943. The target was the German submarine base at Lorient, France on the Bay of Biscay. This port represented a major threat to Allied ships bringing troops, munitions and supplies to England. Their regular pilot, Mel Schulstad, was in the base hospital with flu so a relief pilot was at the controls with Christianson as co-pilot and other crew members in their usual spots. While flying over the target a bomb from a plane at a higher altitude hit their plane. The impact broke the tail off and killed the tail gunner. As trained to do, the other planes in their group scattered to avoid more damage. Meanwhile, “Beats Me” was attacked by enemy fighters who killed the pilot and several others in the plane. Three crew members were able to parachute to safety but were captured and became prisoners of war until released at the war’s end. Later they learned that Christianson had steered the plane away from a village below, and it crashed in a forest near Pluvigner, France. Roy had stayed with the plane as long as he could. According to family, he got his parachute out the window, then was fatally shot by a German fighter plane, dropped his parachute and fell on a pile of rocks some distance away from the airplane. The parachute was later found on a nearby road.
When your town is being bombed the residents are the first on the scene. The people in the town of Pluvinger adopted the men of this crew as their special heroes – a commemoration that has lasted down through the years. They found the aircraft remains in the forest and established an official memorial for the crew men who died at that site. Later a teen age girl named Sidonie found Roy’s body on the pile of rocks at another location. She ran to tell her father who made that spot a memorial without removing the rocks. Today there are flags and a white cross at that location as well as a plaque with his name and story. In addition, there is another official memorial in the city center. Over the years the people of Pluvigner continue to be grateful for the American servicemen who died at their town, and when items surfaced that could be identified they have offered them to the families of the men who died. On the recent trip Bruce and Dorothy were presented with a nameplate that had been attached to Roy’s attache case which he carried with him on the plane that day.
Now how did the people in France know the Johnsons and how did they know about this little village? That is another chapter in the story. The pilot who was ill with the flu recovered and went on to fly 31 missions over Europe before the end of the war. In 1950 the bodies of those killed in this crash were interred in a common grave at the military cemetery at Rock Island, Illinois. The original pilot, Mel Schulstad and Charles Roth the radio operator who had parachuted out of the plane and been a prisoner of war both survived until a few years ago. In 1994 these two survivors went back to France and visited there. They returned to France again when one of the memorials was dedicated in 2004.
In 2004 Jon Schulstad, son of the pilot, who lived in Virginia, called the bank at Edmore and asked if the banker knew relatives of Roy Christianson. The banker referred him to Bruce Johnson who learned many of the details of the 1943 battle in the air and the subsequent death of his cousin from Schulstad. Later Winston Johnson and his wife spent the winter in Arizona where they met Charles Roth, the second living crew member and interest in visiting the site in France grew. Bruce and Dorothy Johnson made their first trip to Pluvigner, France in 2007 along with her brother and his wife, David and Cordy Strand. David’s story with pictures appeared in the Cavalier County Republican in 2008, but the article never made it as far as the clipping file. Bruce and Dorothy Johnson were part of a group of 23 Americans invited to visit Pluvigner, France, this summer for the 75th Anniversary Memorial honoring those who died in the crash. Others in the group were members of the American Legion Post of Stockton Spring, Maine. That Post was named for Jerry Dobbins, left waist gunner on “Beats Me” who perished January 23, 1943 and was also being honored as part of the ceremony.
Special thanks to all who contributed to this story. More information and pictures are on internet including pictures of the plane, the members of the crew and their life stories. We found some of the details by typing in Roy W. Christianson.